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NewsJan 28, 2019

Costa Rica program gives students mindful experience abroad

Professors encourage students to go deep, in unique holistic psychology and wellness program

A purple sunset on the beach

By Georgia Sparling

Learning holistic psychology concepts, such as expressive movement and mindfulness, with the sound of the Pacific Ocean in the background isn’t a bad way to spend a summer studying abroad.

For the 40 students who participated in our holistic psychology and wellness program in Costa Rica in June, the experience changed how they view themselves, their careers and their Lesley community while exposing them to a new culture.

“From a teacher’s perspective, having students in a foreign country, in a beautiful part of nature where they’re taking some of the cutting-edge classes we offer at Lesley, that combination is just amazing,” said Associate Professor of Psychology Neal Klein.

Klein and Assistant Professor of Psychology Jan Wall organized the first trip in 2017. The program consists of two intensive two-week courses on subjects such as mindfulness and mental health, holistic psychology and ecopsychology, all taught in a secluded region of Costa Rica. Klein and Wall, a husband and wife duo, chose an eco-hotel – with daily yoga classes and a nearby cacti labyrinth for contemplation – as an ideal venue for fostering an inclusive and challenging atmosphere.

Going deep

Klein and Wall pack a semester’s worth of information and practice into each of the two-week courses, and given the introspective nature of the work, they ask students to look inward quickly.

Alexis Bilcik, a junior counseling major, said the program was life-changing for her.

Group shot at night of the students and faculty.
Forty students participated in the Costa Rica program last summer during two, two-week sessions.

“This experience did have an impact on me as a person, not only academically, but in terms of self-discovery as well,” Bilcik said. “The phrase I kept using was ‘mind-blowing.’ I left with more of an awareness and understanding of myself.”

Students also noticed a change in their peers. A tight community quickly formed among the students, many of whom didn’t know each other prior to the trip. Students remarked that they felt at home both in the location and with their peers.

“Students really feel safe, they reveal things, they’re willing to go very deep, very quickly,” said Wall. “Students find a voice who have not previously felt like they could voice certain things.”

Beyond the context of the classes, students express new self-confidence outside of the classroom. Wall noted a shy student who sang with the band at a restaurant the group frequented and another student, Sarah Quinn, who took the plunge on the zipline despite being terrified of heights, because her peers cheered her on.

Something for everybody

As an elementary education major, Quinn felt out of her element joining the program. Now she recommends it to everyone.

“If people were going to take the trip, don’t hold back. Do everything. If you don’t, you’re really missing out. It’s intimidating at first but just do it and you will get the most out of the experience,” said Quinn, who continues to practice yoga, mindfulness and meditation on campus.

One of a handful of students without a foundation in holistic psychology or counseling, Quinn and fellow education major Claire Purrington said they quickly felt at ease.

Open air class in Costa Rica
Students study with Assistant Professor Jan Wall in an open air classroom.

Faculty members made sure the coursework was relevant to the future teachers and kept them engaged in the discussion.

“(Klein) would give us a voice. He not only broke it down, he was very understanding that not everyone in the room is familiar with those terms,” Purrington said.

The friends also found that they bonded quickly with their peers, and those bonds continue on campus. Many students said they feel more connected to the Lesley community as a result of the program.

“I was just thinking how many times I must have walked by these people on campus and didn’t know them, never said hi to them. Now, before I can process who it is, they’re just hugging me,” Purrington said.

Travel to a new culture

While traveling all the way to Costa Rica to take courses offered on the Lesley campus could seem unnecessary, students in the program say the intense focus and the location offer an experience that’s not as accessible from the comfort of one’s own culture.

Bryanna Payne zooms down the zipline.
Student Bryanna Payne zooms down the zipline, one of many activities that allowed students to get a unique view of Costa Rica.

“Students found out who they are supposed to be. It’s not just the classes, it’s not just the space, it’s the combination of everything. You come back your true self,” said holistic psychology alumnus Michael Murphy ’18 who provides logistical support during the trips.

The two, two-week sessions also give students an opportunity to interact with Costa Ricans, including time to interact with at-risk children at a local nonprofit.

Jimmy Green, a psychology major minoring in social work, went on the trip to expand his worldview as he looks to a career in counseling or social work.

“I feel going to Costa Rica, I can really make the connection in what I learn and what already exists in my country,” said Green, a junior. “The benefits are huge for anyone going into a human services job.”

Other students joined the trip because a semester or year abroad wasn’t feasible, but they still wanted the experience.

A labyrinth made of cacti
A labyrinth of cacti near the hotel is a favorite place for students to practice contemplation and mindfulness.

No matter the reason, the benefit to the students is clear for Klein and Wall, and they welcome more interest in the small-but-popular program.

“It’s an important part of education,” Klein said. “Eighty percent of Americans don’t own a passport. It seems to us if you’re an educated student in this century, wouldn’t it be nice that you’ve traveled outside of the U.S. at least one time in your college experience? This is what moves us.”